Newswise — As the number of non-English speakers seeking healthcare in the United States continues to grow, so does the need for medical interpreters who can serve as a liaison between patients and their doctors. The demand for medical interpreters is expected to increase even more when new standards go into effect on January 1, 2011 requiring healthcare organizations to provide an interpreter to patients who speak limited English.
Federal laws have been on the books for years requiring medical institutions to provide interpreters to non-native speakers, but there has been little enforcement of the provisions until recently. Now the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 18,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the United States, is establishing new standards effective in January requiring hospitals to provide language interpreting and translation services.
The new provisions are expected to further fuel the demand for medical interpreters, which were already in short supply. Even before the new standards were introduced, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted jobs for interpreters and translators would grow by 22 percent over the next decade, faster than the average for all other occupations. Meanwhile a nationwide survey of 4,700 doctors, conducted by the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change, found that only 55.8 percent of practices with non-English speaking patients provide interpreting services, and 40 percent offer patient-education materials in languages other than English.
Medicaid currently reimburses the medical provider for the services of an interpreter. Depending on the state, a medical interpreter can make $25 to $50 an hour. In the private sector, they can command upwards of $100 an hour. However, it can be even more costly to forego the services of an interpreter, said Dr. Olgierda Furmanek, an associate professor at Wake Forest University who has designed a new graduate level curriculum in response to this burgeoning career opportunity.
“In a hospital, when there is a language barrier between the patient and the medical professional, it slows everything down. Trained medical interpreters bring more efficiency to the overall operation,” Furmanek said. “Without interpreters present, mistakes can happen and they can be costly and tragic.”
In order to be effective, medical interpreters must not only be fluent in a second language but also know a great deal of medical terminology, have good memory recall, understand ethics and cultural sensitivities, and be accurate and precise in interpreting and translating medical information. They also cannot omit or filter information exchanged between a doctor and a patient.
While there are many certificate programs for medical interpreters, the field lacks professional rigor the way legal interpreting does, Furmanek said. No national guidelines exist regarding the proper training of medical interpreters that would help potential employers, she added.
Beginning in 2011, Wake Forest University will offer a new MA in Interpreting and Translation Studies with three tracks, including the Intercultural Services in Healthcare option -- the first such specialization in the United States --- which prepares graduates for managerial careers in areas of culture-sensitive healthcare delivery. Another track, Teaching of Interpreting, will be the only one in the Northern hemisphere educating faculty for college-level interpreting programs.
“It’s not enough to know anatomy and biology to be a doctor, so why would simply being bilingual be enough to be a medical interpreter?” said Furmanek. “Medical interpreters are professionals who are part of the healthcare team.”